From Great To Excellent: An #OntEd Online Consultation

22 Sep

Next Phase

In early June I wrote about Ontario’s ‘secret’ public consultation into education. Well, the summer flew by and now the ‘consultation season’ is well and truly upon us (have you bought your ‘consultation tree’ yet??).

From now until November 15th Ontarians are being encouraged to “…submit ideas and help take our education system – already one of the best in the world – from Great to Excellent.”.  Here’s the Minster’s message about this effort.

In support of this the Ministry of Education has provided a “Community Consultation Kit” to support District School Boards, School Communities and Community Groups and Organizations and help them provide input into Ontario’s education system.

As most of us well know (ok, maybe not the ministry) in 2013 communities aren’t tied to particular geographic locations. Increasingly, 21st century communities arise around ideas and ways of thinking and include people from a variety of geographic locations and walks of life. Precisely the diverse slice of opinions and voices the ministry is asking to hear from and desperately needs.

To this end I will be hosting a series of online events to allow anyone who wishes to join us the chance to discuss The Seven Questions posed for consultation. At the end of these online consultations I’ll submit the main points of the discussion to the ministry through their online submission form.

Here’s how I think this will work. On the dates listed below I’ll host a twitter chat on two of the questions using the hashtag #G2EChat.

  1. September 28th – Questions 1 & 2 (9 am-10 am)
  2. October 5th – Questions 3 & 4  (9 am-10 am)
  3. October 12th – Questions 5 & 6  (9 am-10 am)
  4. October 19th – Questions 7 & wrap-up (9 am-10 am)

The twitterchat will be divided into two 30 minute discussion periods, with the first period devoted to the first question listed and the second period devoted to answering the second question.  I’ll introduce the question and allow some time for reflection and discussion and then for the last 5-10 minutes I’ll ask people to make their final statements for submission.

Obviously these are general guidelines and if there’s a need I’ll modify them. If anyone has other suggestions or a better way to do this please hit me up in the comments or on twitter (@acampbell99).

I got lots of interested responses when I proposed this on twitter so hopefully we’ll get lots of smart people engaged in debate and have some helpful input for the Minster.


The Last Teacher: A Tragedy

24 Aug

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W.H. Auden. Funeral Blues.

I invite the world into my classroom. Student learning should be as relevant to real life as possible, so I use technology, guest speakers, field trips and any other tactic possible to facilitate connections between what happens in the classroom and ‘the real world’.

Making a separation between the world outside the school and what happens inside is an artificial construct. Students arrive in our classrooms with all kinds of baggage (poverty, family dynamics, nutrition, media influences, etc.) that affect their learning. Pretending that our classrooms aren’t part of ‘the real world’ doesn’t help students in their learning or make schools better.

But there are moments when I wish all of this wasn’t true, when I wish our schools were the goldfish bowls we sometimes pretend they are, and the outside world could be kept at arm’s length. That students could find a safe and protective space inside those walls and behind those doors.

Tragedies big and small affect students and classrooms and schools all the time. As a teacher part of my role is to try to help students understand, process and come to some peace with them. Increasing transparency in our world means that younger and younger students become aware of the unpleasantness and pain that living in the world can sometimes mean. It’s hard to make school seem important if students are afraid for their safety.

Last year the ten and eleven year olds in my classroom had many questions about things like The Boston Bombings. I tried to help them understand these difficult issues and make some sense of them by letting them ask questions. Before that it was Newton and poverty and homelessness and disease and on and on. There’s no shortage of ‘big scary issues’ and I could discuss them in the abstract and with personal detachment. I could put aside my own fear and feelings about them and be a sounding board for my students. This is much harder to do when the tragedies affecting students also affect me personally.

I returned from vacation last week to find out that one of my students had died. A wonderful, funny, bright, charming, creative, silly eleven year old girl fell out of a window and died. For the second time in my teaching career I’m the last teacher a student will ever have.

It’s hard to explain how heavily this weighs on me. I try to remember what my last words to her were. Did I make sure she knew how wonderful I thought she was? Did I do all I could to make her last year in school all it could be? Did I spend our time doing things that really mattered?

I also feel a sense of responsibility. As a teacher it’s part of that relationship with a student that we take that on. When students go on and achieve success we feel a sense of shared pride in their accomplishments, that in a way we had a hand in it. In the same way I wonder if I did enough to prevent this tragedy. I know this is irrational but the questions niggle away at the edge of my consciousness.

Some of her classmates came to the visitation for her a couple of days ago. I was repeatedly being pulled out of my own grief and towards trying to help them make sense of what had happened. The awful part about it was that, of course, I had no answers for them, no reassurances. I wanted to reach out them, to connect with them, but I had nothing to say. They already knew the truth.

When we return to school after labour day those students, and many others, will need support and help in dealing with what’s happened. I know that, as their teacher, I’m best placed to give them that support. But I really don’t know where that’s going to come from. How can I help them to understand something that I don’t understand? How can I tell them it’s going to be ok, when I’m not sure it will?

For now, my hope is that simply being there will be enough. That letting them know it will take time, and that if they need support I’ll be there. I plan to be as honest as I can, and admit when there are things I don’t have answers to. I know that both they and I will have other support. I plan on using it, and I hope they will too.

I’ll also keep those questions in the front of my mind as I’m teaching. Do my students know how wonderful I think they are? Am I doing all I can to make this a great experience for them? Am I spending my time doing the things that really matter?


It Takes A PLN…

22 Aug

It Takes A PLN...

The cool people at Educator Studio (@EducatorStudio) illustrated one of my tweets. I think it looks great!!

Protecting Students From Big Data

18 Jul

Teaching is a form of time travel. Teachers prepare students today but work in the future, giving students what they’ll need years or decades from now. This is an increasingly difficult job, as the rate of change in society makes that future increasingly uncertain.

An emerging issue that will affect students in the future is the role of Big Data. Digital tools are ubiquitous today, as is the use of services we access with those tools. Phones, tablets and laptops would be much less useful without the use of digital services. Searching on Google, researching on Wikipedia, shopping on Amazon or connecting through social media is the interrelated nature of digital devices and applications.

What users sometimes forget is that digital services make money by selling the data they collect about users. Each time a user does something on an application an “event‘ is created. Every website searched for, every person ‘liked’, every retweet, every product purchased is an event and over time they provide a detailed profile of the user’s behaviour, their interests, likes and dislikes. This profile is incredibly valuable as it can be used to predict future behaviour. This is the data that drives Amazon’s recommendations or Facebook’s suggestions of “friends”.

While we don’t know what the future uses of this data will be, we have some examples that are illustrative:

  • In the U.S., the National Security Administration uses Big Data to decide who to place on their anti-terrorist “No-Fly lists”. This has led to many people being incorrectly placed on the list including Sen. Edward Kennedy, a U.S. marine and a nun.
  • Some credit card user had their credit limits lowered not because of their own credit history, but because they shopped at stores that people with poor credit ratings also shopped at.
  • People whose purchase records include plus-sized clothing may be flagged for obesity by health care providers.
  • Netflix uses big data to create shows that it already knows viewers will love by “mining” data on what subscribers watch, when they stop watching, what they fast forward through and what they rewind and watch again.

However Big Data is used in the future, it’s likely it will be used extensively by corporations and government to predict what people will do and make decisions based on those predictions. Educators need to consider what their role is in preparing students for that future.

Some issues to consider and discuss:

  1. Using Digital Tools: Educators have embraced the use of free digital tools in the classroom. Google Apps for Education, Edmodo, KidBlog and many others are popular popular free services. Educators make extensive use of social media to connect with students. All of these services and tools require students to create accounts which allow data to be collected on a student’s behaviour. A student could graduate from high school with fourteen years of ‘events’ (clicks, search results, e-mails, etc.) created through their learning. The implications are significant. Is it ethical for educators to facilitate the collection of data about students by corporations?
  2. “In House” Digital Tools: Some schools or school boards prefer to use “in house” digital tools to retain control of student data. The same questions apply to student data no matter who collects it. Does it belong to the student or the institution? Is the institution free to use student data as it sees fit? Could student data be used to support future programming decisions for students? Could placement of students into streams, programs or access to support be determined in advance by a student’s data profile?
  3. Financial Pressure: My school uses a useful digital tool, created by a large corporation, for which we pay a licensing fee. As part of the licensing fee the corporation retains rights to student data and stores it for us. If we wish to retain our student data we must pay an additional fee and set up our own data server. Given the cost and inconvenience, our student data is kept by the corporation. In an environment of shrinking budgets and financial pressure on schools, large digital corporations have the upper hand. They are offering ‘free’ or low-cost services in return for data and schools and educators are not well positioned to refuse. What are the alternatives to using commercial digital tools in the classroom? Could a cash strapped school or school board use student data as a source of revenue? What is a school’s responsibilities with respect to the personal data of people who are no longer students?

These are difficult questions for educators and there are not many easy answers. Further discussion leading to policy is needed.

Some related blogs:

How do we teach terms of service? by Royan Lee

Royan’s Delema by Tim King

Building a student data infrastructure by Audrey Watters

Teaching Lessons From The Wire

16 Jul

The Wire may be the greatest TV show of all time. It’s included in most “top five”  lists and  was anointed number one by Entertainment Weekly when they published their list of  The Greatest TV Shows of All Time in June of 2013.

The irony of this popular acclaim isn’t lost on long-time fans of The Wire because for years it seemed that this amazing show was destined to be ignored by most TV viewers. When the show aired (2002-2008 on HBO) it had famously low ratings and despite being critically lauded never won an Emmy award. Creator and “show runner” David Simon attributed this to “…the complexity of the plot; a poor time slot; heavy use of esoteric slang, particularly among the gangster characters; and a predominantly black cast”.

The Wire differs from many TV shows by having a complex, multi-layered plot that makes comment on modern society.  TV critics compare it to the best works of Dickens or Dostoyevsky in the way it uses narrative to explore social problems, especially the problems of urban poor in North America. One of the issues explored at length (mostly in season 4) is the role of schools and the education system in perpetuating many of  these problems.

I’ve watched The Wire multiple times and feel it has a lot to say about education and teaching. Here are five lessons I’ve spotted:

  1. Juking The Stats: One of the themes through all 60 episodes is the how politicians and bureaucrats rely on statistics to justify policy decisions. The Baltimore police department is concerned not with solving crimes, but rather with making sure that crime statistics show they’re doing their job. The emphasis on statistics changes how they approach their job. In season 4 Roland Pryzbylewski, a detective who becomes a teacher (as The Wire co-creator Ed Burns did) discovers that things are much the same in public schools. I’m always a little surprised by how accurate a depiction this scene is of what happens in schools.

The Lesson: Test scores aren’t about learning, they’re about politics, and as such they make learning in our schools worse.

  1. The King Stay The King: Despite our efforts the hierarchy of societies doesn’t change much. Drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale teaches ‘corner boys’ Bodie and Wallace how to play chess. They want to know how a pawn can become a king and win. D’Angelo explains that no matter what, a pawn can never become a king, just like in real life.

The Lesson: We may see education as a path for students to move out of poverty, but the opportunities are few and the chances are slim. Often in society “…the king stay the king” no matter what we do or how hard we try.

  1. It’s All In The Game– The drug trade subculture, as depicted in The Wire, is referred to as “the game”. People do horrible, awful things to each other in pursuit of their goals but justify it as being ‘all in the game’. It makes sense within the rules and codes of the subculture. Similarly schools are subcultures, and there are many things in schools that don’t make sense outside that subculture.

The Lesson: Schools are separate places with separate rules. Sometimes there’s a disconnect for students between the world of their school and the world outside. They might be from different ethnic culture or economic circumstances. We need to recognize and allow for the fact that for many students schools don’t make sense and are disconnected from the ‘real world’ they and their families live in.

  1. Caring When It Isn’t Your Turn (paraphrased): Police detective and anti-hero Jimmy McNulty points out in the first episode of The Wire the dangers in taking on a challenge when you don’t have to. Detectives who try to ‘change the world’ end up feeling frustrated and ineffective. Addressing complex problems is difficult and requires a collective effort.

The Lesson: There’s a long list of outside factors that affect a child’s learning (poverty, family circumstances, previous learning, etc.). If we try to ‘fix’ all of them we end up spread too thin and unable to do focus on where we’re most effective. We need to accept students as they are and do our best to help them move them forward, and not get distracted by the multiplicity of things we can’t control. Care deeply about the things that really matter.

  1. “The game is rigged, but you cannot lose if you do not play”: Police lieutenant Cedric Daniels has been assigned to investigate a crime neither he nor his superiors want investigated. He feels he’s in a ‘no win’ situation when his wife points out to him that this is only true if he accepts success as others have defined it. If he thinks ‘outside the box’ and redefines the situation there’s a way forward.

The Lesson: Many outside the system try to define what success means in education. Politicians define it in terms of test scores and graduations rates. Some educators find themselves in difficult situations with inadequate resources to meet those external definitions of success. When faced with this educators should redefine what success in the classroom means to them. Perhaps it’s progress or maybe it’s making a difference to a student in a non-academic way. Whatever it is, it’s important to make sure that “success” is defined in ways that are personally meaningful.

Guest Post: Living and Teaching With ADHD

12 Jul

In response to yesterday’s post about ADHD medication I was contacted by Ryan Barrett. Ryan is an elementary Core French teacher with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board and has been since September 2008. Ryan shared his extraordinary and inspiring story of growing up, living and teaching with ADHD. I asked if I could share that story on this blog and he agreed. The following are his words, unedited by me.

I am 32 years old and teach grades 3/4/5 and have been undergoing medical treatment for combined type ADHD (both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive types) for just over a year now. The ‘just’ is the important modifier here as I have spent my years from pre-school to university, and every year thereafter in classrooms, trying to find my footing in the simplest of routines we teach our students Day One.  I kept re-living that first day of school, struggling with unmanaged ADHD for 28 years, until last winter when I just couldn’t make it out of the house anymore.

My personal struggle in the classroom was never of the sort that distracted others or demanded additional support from the teacher. I was identified gifted, and at IPRC meetings (this was pre-IEP, but post-Bill 82) they said I was bored and that I needed to challenge myself. Eventually, they thought, I would learn to meet deadlines. I would learn that ‘practice makes perfect’, and the restlessness and indecision would eventually fade and I would find my one true calling. I would learn to use a binder, a highlighter, and keep a calendar — and follow it! I would be satisfied and confident enough to complete a piece of work without starting over, and over, and over…

While my proficiencies were lauded, supported medically, and formalized, my weaknesses were dismissed as the tiniest of challenges that maturity would overcome.

Today I still find it difficult to go seek help when I can’t concentrate, when I can’t focus, or can’t stay organized. I don’t tell enough people when I am frustrated, overwhelmed, or worried about deadlines looming or missed. I certainly don’t seek medical attention often enough, and especially not when I am unable — when my brain, and body are unable – to accomplish a task that is, at this stage in my life, vital to my survival. I can’t stress that enough. I can’t live like this without treating the root of the problem and not just the symptoms.  Last winter I didn’t think there was any hope at all.

Without the right medication, the dosage of which is still being adjusted since I am just at the start of this journey, I just haven’t enough strategies to do all of the  things most other grown-ups do in a day. Time and time again, I wake up in the morning and wonder what to do next.

Do I shower first? Where is my towel? I always end up leaving wet footprints on the carpet in the hallway. Keys: I need those to drive. I lost the checklist I made last night. It is probably with the one I made the night before last. If anything goes wrong, I’ll be late. I have just enough time to reinvent the wheel before the bell goes.

Still, I remain bound to the classroom, where I practice what I never learned. But this September, I’ll be a step closer, and all because I know now that my body lacks what it needs to propel me through the next day, and the next. And because it’s not a secret anymore…

The Use of ADHD Drugs in Schools

11 Jul

An article in the Wall Street Journal has re-started public discussion on why so many students are taking medication to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s a thorny issue with implications for the kind of schools we have, the kind of schools we want and how we view students and their learning.

New research, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research and published in June, studied how taking Ritalin, a medication commonly prescribed for ADHD, affected students in Quebec. According to the study, taking Ritalin caused “…increases in emotional problems among girls, and reductions in educational attainment among boys…”. This is disturbing news for students, parents and educators.

There has been an explosion in the use of medication to treat ADHD in children in recent years. In March, 2013 the Center for Disease Control reported “…a 16 percent increase since 2007 and a 41 percent rise in the past decade…” in the number of US children diagnosed with ADHD. Currently nearly one in five high school boys and 11% of all school age children are diagnosed with ADHD. In the wake of these revelations some critics are suggesting that prescribing ADHD medication (and the resultant side effects) to children, without gains in learning constitutes “malpractice”.

I can’t find Canadian stats, but my own classroom experience suggests a similar pattern of use. My class last year, which was typical, had 16% of students taking ADHD medication. All of these students were boys. In fact, the majority of students diagnosed with ADHD are boys. Boys are five to nine times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, leading some to suggest that this is evidence of a ‘war on boys’ in our schools.

The high rates of ADHD, and the resultant medication use, says a lot about the culture in schools. Students who don’t progress are pathologized, and schools only accept or allow for deviation if it’s supported by a label. There used to be an understanding that schools can’t meet every student’s needs, but no longer. We devote extensive resources to finding out why a student isn’t learning and ensuring they have every chance to be successful. This process, along with the need for labels, leads to higher rates of diagnosis.

Learning is a complex process and it’s difficult to determine whether it occurred.  Standardized tests are unreliable indicators of the many ways learning happens. Further, just because a student can sit still and pay attention doesn’t mean they have the skills to learn. Students struggle with ADHD for years causing a skills deficit and layers of coping strategies that interfere with learning. Prescribing and using medication is merely the first of several steps in helping a student with ADHD to learn.

The presence of a student with ADHD often impacts on the learning of the whole class. Students with ADHD can be disruptive, making learning more difficult for other students. Teachers devote time to managing and supporting students with ADHD, meaning less time and support is available for other students. It’s likely that the learning of the class improves when a student with ADHD is successfully treated with medication, even though their individual learning may not.

The value of ADHD medication is not exclusively in improving academic learning. Students with ADHD  struggle daily to meet basic expectations leading to lower self-esteem. Medication helps students with ADHD to improve their quality of life, with more friendships and a more positive attitude about school and life. That may, in the long run, be more important than a gain in academic learning.

I prefer using methods other than medication to support students with ADHD whenever possible. A classroom environment where students work in collaborative small groups and have the freedom to move around if needed can be helpful. A well constructed and implemented IEP (Individual Education Plan) with useful accommodations and strategies is also recommended.

The decision of whether or not to use medication to treat ADHD is a difficult one for parents. There are multiple factors to consider and every case is different. It is especially complicated for parents without the resources to provide the extensive support a child with ADHD may need. Constantly taking time off work to deal with problems at school isn’t a viable option for most parents. Sometimes it isn’t a matter of choosing the best solution, but rather finding the right option given the many constraints. And sometimes, that’s medication.